Keynote Lecture – ‘Language Death’ By David Crystal

20 10 2009

Crystal PolaroidSpeaker: David Crystal (University of Bangor)

Full title: Language Death: a Problem for All

Disciplines: Linguistics/Literature



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16 responses

20 10 2009

Wonderful lecture, Prof. Crystal. We need to elevate the problem of language death as high as possible, especially because it’s often eclipsed by global warming, warfare, and other significant world problems.

20 10 2009
david crystal

Many thanks. Yes, that was a real problem in 2008, with the International Year of Languages tending to be eclipsed by the other ‘Years’ which were simultaneously ongoing, such as the Year of Planet Earth. The current proposal being discussed by UNESCO for an International Decade of Languages would give the subject a better presence.

20 10 2009

Somehow I think linguists need to break into the news sphere—to find an egregious example of language death and use it as a symbol to raise awareness. People will believe almost anything that’s said by a famous anchor with gravitas. Overcoming apathy (and ignorance) is a monumental hurdle: if I’m Joe the Plumber, why do I care about Western Cree?

But if I’m Joe the Plumber and I find out from Tony Harris on CNN that a language that potentially had encoded cancer-curing plants is now dead, I might drop my wrench and listen.

21 10 2009
Maeve O'Donovan

Like many of the persons David Crystal is addressing, I came to his lecture with an underappreciation of the phenomenon of language death. His clear, engaging style kept me reading (the audio transcript), despite my doubts, and I am so glad it did. The top ten list of reasons why language death is important is terrific!

Crystal’s appeal to the evolutionary advantage of diversity, in areas of life and scholarship both scientific and not, has tremendous value. I am particularly taken by reasons one and seven. It is lovely to see an ecological sensitivity brought to bear on an examination of linguistic practices. [Yet another gold star to the Compass conference organizers for their promotion of interdisciplinarity!] I also find Crystal’s articulation of the central importance of language diversity to advances in cognitive science quite compelling, and hope to integrate his insight into my own work on disabilty and neurodiversity.

21 10 2009
Amber-Lee Knott

Extremely interesting! Being an English speaking Canadian, your lecture provided great insight into the Francophone situation in Quebec which I am sure many Canadians have never considered.

21 10 2009

Although it is true that many of the smaller languages are slowly losing their identity and eventually becoming extinct, there are cases (or…one case) of small languages actually becoming stronger.

I use the Faroe Islands as an example. Their language, Faroese, is spoken by 40, 000 people perhaps. The youth of the country tend to leave for higher education, and also tend to be fluent in Danish (which is similar, as it is the source of the language) and extremely good in English. Yet despite what should be the reality, which would see the children permanently leaving and the distinct language dying with the few that decided to stay, the population is not shrinking dramatically and the language is actually getting stronger. Objects that, 40 years ago, were assigned a Danish word for lack of a Faroese term now have their own words.

It has to do with identity. If you are determined to keep the identity of your ancestors, you strive harder to ensure the native language is maintained. Unfortunately, a knowledge of a second language is (likely) needed to survive in the world stage, but that doesn’t mean that the smaller languages will cease to be.

21 10 2009
david crystal

Marin: absolutely. And another success story is Welsh, which went up from 500,000 (1991 census) to 580,000 (2001). Great to hear these stories – though there are too few of them around still.

ktdickinson: yes, and the artists of the world, as I argue, have a special role here. Imagine, if Michael Jackson, say, had made a remark about endangered languages, how everyone would have taken notice. Well, there are still plenty of people around who could help the language PR, in this respect, and if anyone out there is in contact with a personality, it is time well spent to inform them about this topic.

22 10 2009

I agree with Marin that keeping your native language alive is very much a matter of cultural heritage and identity, and therefore I am glad that communities such as the Faroese and the Welsh are actively making the effort to make sure their cultural heritage and identities aren’t lost to the world.
I do not, however, view the necessity, or at least the advisabilty, of learning a second language for communication beyond one’s native community as unfortunate, though. In fact, that has always been a basic requirement if communication between members of different communities was to be achieved.
As a native speaker of German who has taught English to adults I am aware that quite a few people are unhappy with the fact that they are expected by their companies to learn English, and they tend to ask the question why it has to be English that is used as the common language of international communication. But I personally think that it is a good thing that we have such a common language for international communication (and we could have done worse than choosing English for that purpose). The important issue in the unfolding globalised communications will be that we don’t give up our native languages in favour of just one common language. Diversity is an asset worth preserving, but there is no need for cultural isolationism, and thus no need to fear the other.

22 10 2009
david crystal

Absolutely. Balance is everything. We need a language for mutual intelligibility and one for cultural identity. The two perspectives complement each other, and a multilingual frame of reference is the ideal aim, in my view. At the moment English is the language of international intelligibility, for a host of historical reasons. Of course, it may not always remain so. The one thing you can never do with languages is predict their future.

24 10 2009
Scott Noegel

Dear David,

Thank you for your sobering talk. Like most people, I was unaware of staggering numbers that you presented, and I am saddened by them.

As a Professor of Ancient Near Eastern languages, I am all too well aware of what it is like to study languages whose pronunciations we can only approximate. I count humankind fortunate that some of the ancients left written records of any kind. You mentioned Hittite in your talk. I cannot help but add that we know there were hundreds, perhaps thousands of other languages (and dialects!) spoken in the ancient Near East alone, for which we know only the names and/or ethnonyms. Only those languages that were written down survived in any form. So I imagine the numbers of languages lost since the third millennium BCE (just to choose a date) was far greater than we can even imagine. I think one way I might start to help educate people about language death is to alert people (including my students) to your fine presentation.

All the best,


25 10 2009
david crystal

A very important observation, which doesn’t reduce the seriousness of the current crisis but does help to put it in perspective. People have sometimes speculated about how many languages there might have been since the human race began to talk. Figures vary enormously – 150,000 was one suggestion, I recall.

9 03 2010

it is equally important to say that people have the upper hand in deciding whether to abandon their language or to let it die. Nowadays multilingualism is appreciated highly in some countries, which may help to some extent in sustaining some endangered languages. Some places in the world have more linguistic diversity than others. Having said this, most of the diversity exists in third- world countries, which requires our due attention to such countries and how can people sustain the ecological system of some of these languages.

5 04 2010

Hello David Crystal,
I was really happy to know a lot about you! speaking honestly I’m not Englishman but I’m studying English. Nowadays I’m studying at muster degree and the theme of my dessertation work is “Interpretation of David Crystal’s works” . Moreover, it was a big problem for me to write about you because I knew less information about You. But after reseach which I have made and continuing to do it I really interested in my work , after seeing this and other videos of Your lectures I have some ideas what to write about…
I have some questions to You if it is possible to have the answers:
1 What was the main problems which You are interested in?
2 Mainly I would like to write about the Dialects from Your point of view.
3 Can you advice may anything or not?
thanx a lot for Your attention!!!
Looking forward to hearing from You!!!)))

15 04 2010
david crystal

These questions are all answered in my autobiographical memoir, Just a Phrase I’m Going Through: My Life in Language (Routledge, 2009).

17 04 2010

Thanx a lot! I really happy that I can communicate with You! It’s really fantastic to have a talk with You! Even through the Internet!
Ones more Thank You!

13 04 2011
Muhammad Tahir Mallam

My comment is addressed to the Compass, and it’s simply to say a big thank you for giving us ‘indigent’ budding scholars free access to your great collection of superb scholarly articles and journals.Thank you,

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